What It’s Like to Be an Artist-in-Residence at the Gardner Museum

It comes with exclusive 'flashlight tours' of the museum at night, an encouraging environment—and a curfew.

gardner museum artists in residence charmaine wheatley

Charmaine Wheatley, a two-time artist-in-residence at the Gardner Museum, painted live portraits of visitors during her most recent stay. / Photo by Olga Khvan

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s artist-in-residence program, founded by director Anne Hawley in 1992 as a way of continuing its namesake’s tradition of supporting contemporary artists, comes with incredible perks—access to a world-class collection, accommodations inside an apartment designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano, and the ability to explore the city beyond.

But here’s the catch—if the artists-in-residence—the museum can accommodate up to two at a time—do venture outside of the Gardner, they have to be back by midnight.

The curfew poses a challenge for Charmaine Wheatley, who recently completed a second round of residency at the museum. In 2012, she was among the first artists to stay inside the apartments built on the second floor of the new wing—previously, they had stayed in the Carriage House, which was razed to make room for the new building. During her first stay, Wheatley grew a fondness for Wally’s Cafe, the historic jazz club located in the South End.

“I find that it only starts to get good after 11 or 12,” she said.

Rules are rules, and Wheatley understood. But here’s the other thing—Pieranna Cavalchini, the Gardner’s contemporary art curator who oversees the artist-in-residence program with the help of residency and contemporary program manager Tiffany York, strives to foster a nurturing environment for the artists. Making no promises, she told Wheatley that she’d look into “special considerations” to allow her to enjoy a full night of jazz.

The same open approach is applied to the artists’ creative processes. When Wheatley wanted to make custom paper for her drawings, for example, Cavalchini made it happen. She partnered the artist with a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, who spent about a week helping Wheatley embed natural elements, including nasturtiums collected from the museum’s courtyard, into recycled paper.

“I’m used to people saying no to me, but at the Gardner—I have ideas, and they just go, ‘Yeah, we’ll make it happen,'” said Wheatley. “It’s wonderful as an artist to be encouraged.”

Despite the curfew, there’s a special treat in store for artists-in-residence after hours. In a little-known tradition, they follow one of the security guards on a “flashlight tour” of the museum, exploring the collections by night. The Raqs Media Collective, who spent time at the Gardner in 2010, created a silent, looped-digital projection, inspired by the experience. Wheatley was similarly inspired to create a drawing of a bust, surrounded by darkness, that features snippets of her conversation with the flashlight-wielding security guard.

“It’s very intimate and it’s very focused because I don’t see anything else in the museum. In the natural daylight, I go and look at this terra cotta bust and say, ‘Oh, it’s okay,'” she said. “We were out after midnight until 2 or 3 in the morning, looking at art, creeping around.”

By day, Wheatley enjoyed admiring the natural light in her museum apartment—it comes outfitted with a balcony and an all-glass wall, which can be shuttered with shades.

“Everything is white and clean, and the shadows are so dramatic,” she said.

gardner museum artists in residence charmaine wheatley

Artist-in-residence live in apartments designed by Renzo Piano, situated on the second floor of the new wing. / Photo provided

Wheatley also spent a significant amount of time within other parts of the museum. During her first residency, she often brought her miniature watercolor set into the courtyard, well before visitors came in at 11 a.m.—although a security guard did have to “babysit” her, she said.

During her second residency, which coincided with the opening of her “Souvenirs” exhibition, currently on view in the historic building’s Fenway Gallery, Wheatley hosted 20-minute live portrait sittings in the new building’s Living Room.

At times, the artists-in-residence attend special events—receptions inside Hawley’s office, located inside Isabella Gardner’s original drawing room, galas, dinners hosted by friends of the museum.

For Wheatley, ventures outside of the Gardner included bike rides around Boston, visits to the nearby Museum of Fine Arts, and a shopping trip to the Garment District, where she was accompanied by Damaris Calderon, whom she met through the museum’s “Teens Behind the Scenes” program.

“She’s like my little sister or something,” said Wheatley.

Fostering close-knit relationships with members of the Gardner’s community is not an uncommon occurrence for the artists-in-residence. While the program puts no pressure on the artists to create an end product in the form of an exhibition or project, these relationships seem to be constant byproducts.

Many, like Wheatley, return to the Gardner after their initial residencies and keep in touch while they’re away. They nurture relationships with people at the museum, both past and present, from its current staff—curators, horticulturalists, security guards, etc.—to Isabella Gardner herself.

“It’s a little bit like living with a ghost,” French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel told Boston in March. Othoniel resided at the Gardner in 2011, returning earlier this year for his “Secret Flower Sculptures” exhibition.

As they ingrain themselves into the museum’s community, planting snippets of themselves here and there through their works, the artists-in-residence also cross paths with each other—although sometimes unknowingly.

On one of Wheatley’s walks through the museum, she stumbled upon a copy of a book written by Othoniel, The Secret Language of Flowers, which offers to take visitors on a plant-oriented tour of the Gardner, left on a bench in the Tapestry Room.

“It’s even better now,” said Wheatley, noting the book’s mysteriously tattered edges.

Later that afternoon, during one of her portrait sittings in the Living Room, Wheatley met Barbara Lynch, not knowing that the local chef resided at the museum last year, embarking on the traditional flashlight tour and turning the apartment into a test kitchen.

Lynch, who was at the museum that day to sample berries and ferns from the museum’s collection for an upcoming dinner, stopped to chat.

“I love your work,” she told Wheatley, who later marveled at the taste of the samples that Lynch had offered her.

gardner museum artists in residence charmaine wheatley

During her second residency, Wheatley created portraits of visitors, who then took scans home as souvenirs. / Photo by Olga Khvan

“Souvenirs,” Wheatley’s current exhibition, focuses primarily on memories created at the Gardner, featuring watercolors of the courtyard, portraits of Damaris and another friend from “Teens Behind the Scenes,” and a letter imaginarily addressed to Matthew Stewart Prichard, Isabella Gardner’s close friend with whom Wheatley became fascinated after combing through the founder’s archives, leading her to dub him her own “19th-century boyfriend.”

The exhibition also features letters, filled with fondness and admiration, addressed from Wheatley to Cavalchinni and Hawley.

“[Relationships at the Gardner] can grow. You don’t have to be anxious that once I go, I’m out the door and I’ll never see anybody again. I really feel like this place is interested in the process of everybody that comes through here.” she said. “You get attached.”

“Charmaine Wheatley: Souvenirs” is on view at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum through July 11, 2016. For more information about the museum’s artist-in-residence program, visit gardnermuseum.org.